Is COVID-19 Changing How We Measure Distance?

Apr 12, 2020

The new coronavirus pandemic felt thousands of miles away, until it didn't. As cases in the U.S. skyrocketed, many noticed a shift — from watching the headlines, to watching what we touch. Listeners wrote in to our podcast, Rough Translation, describing feeling out of sync with their government, their friends, their neighbors.

But what about the disconnect inside one's own home?

Liying, 31, lives now in suburban Connecticut, but she was born in Wuhan, the city in China where the novel coronavirus was first detected in late December. She was following the terrifying updates from her extended family there. Desperate to help, she started fundraising with other Chinese Americans in her neighborhood to buy N95 masks and other medical supplies on eBay to send back to overwhelmed hospitals in Wuhan. (Though she bought these supplies on the private market, she asked that we not use her last name, because she worried she'd be harassed over facilitating the transport of masks to China, a political hot issue right now.) She remembers many late nights, everyone asleep, the neighbor's windows darkened, she would be on the kitchen floor, scanning her phone for deals on masks and protective equipment.

Meanwhile, her husband, Federico, 32, would send her texts from their upstairs bedroom urging her to come back to bed. The way he saw it, she had a demanding job and two small kids to tend to. COVID-19 was a problem thousands of miles away.

Customers buy protective face masks in a pharmacy in Wuhan in January. In the U.S., Liying started fundraising with other Chinese Americans in her neighborhood to buy N95 masks and other medical supplies on eBay to send to overwhelmed hospitals in Wuhan.
Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images

But Liying wasn't measuring her distance from the pandemic in space. She was thinking on the scale of time: How many weeks until those masks would arrive? How many days before the last cargo flight from the U.S. would be cut off and there would be no chance to send supplies? Though she and her husband were occupying the same house, they were measuring this crisis with two different yardsticks.

But that was about to change.

Federico is from Lombardy, Italy — one of the first, and hardest-hit, regions of Europe. In late February, Federico got a call from his father, saying he was being ordered to wear a mask to his job at the post office. In a few weeks, Federico's brother would be graduating from medical school, right into the front lines of the epidemic in Italy.

What are the odds? Husband and wife, both from the respective epicenters of the pandemic on their home continents.

"All our friends are laughing at us," Federico admits, "Not that there is much to laugh about."

The news from Lombardy changed the dynamic between husband and wife. There were no more late-night texts from upstairs. No more questions about why Liying was coordinating cargo flights and running a mini-relief effort from their kitchen. Now Federico was spending as much time as his wife scanning international news sites. The unit of measurement he was using to calculate the nearness of the virus flipped: from miles to days.

Protective masks bearing the names of medical staffers and nurses are pinned to a wall in April at a field hospital for coronavirus patients outside the Cremona hospital in Lombardy, Italy.
Miguel Medina / AFP via Getty Images
That's part of the loneliness, or isolation feeling ... going through something and not having the support or even understanding from people around you. - Federico, an Italian living in Connecticut

Federico and Liying suddenly found it easy to agree on things — like pulling their younger child out of day care, or forbidding both their children from going to playgrounds, weeks before anyone around them did the same. "That's part of the loneliness, or isolation feeling," Federico says, "going through something and not having the support or even understanding from people around you." It disappointed him that his friends and neighbors in Connecticut were still acting like the new coronavirus was a faraway problem, but he understood that "you give more importance to facts and circumstances that touch you personally." After all, hadn't he done the same, just weeks earlier?

On some level, we all know this about ourselves: We pay more attention to things that affect us personally, less attention to things that seem far away. Evolutionarily, that makes sense. But is it possible that our brains are wired for a sense of distance that no longer applies to the world we live in? Is the model of the globe we have in our head outmoded, when we think of China or Italy as far away, when a virus there could arrive here in days?

A man wearing protective gear sprays disinfectant on Piazza Duomo in Milan, in Lombardy, Italy, in March. Federico, who is from Lombardy, and his wife Liying, from Wuhan, pulled their younger child out of day care, and forbid both their children from going to playgrounds, weeks before anyone around them in Connecticut did the same.
Piero Cruciatti / AFP via Getty Images

The disconnect that Liying and Federico felt in their own kitchen is now playing out across the United States. Some of us are measuring this crisis in time, counting down the days until when it might end — or get worse. Others of us still have the luxury of measuring our distance in miles.

In the Connecticut suburb where Liying and Federico live, schools and nonessential businesses are closed. Federico uses a hopeful, but also chilling, phrase to describe that period in his life when first his wife and then he perceived a danger that no one around him seemed to see. "We were out of sync for a couple of weeks," he says. "Now I feel more understood," Federico says. "I feel it's a shared worry. And I feel that we are all in it together."

Now, he says, he and his neighbors are "back in sync." Is it just a matter of time before all of the U.S. is on the same time scale? Before this pandemic gets personal for everyone?

Liying says her neighbors now come to them for advice on lockdown living. The group of Chinese Americans that she worked with to buy up masks to send to Wuhan is now using their connections to Chinese factories to send donations the other way. They are sourcing masks from China to send to Connecticut police departments and fire stations and hospitals.

Liying is surprised to find herself optimistic about the future. While her neighbors in Connecticut hunker down, the stores in her hometown of Wuhan start to reopen. Her grandmother always promised her that this disease would not be how she left this world. Liying is finally letting herself believe her. But Liying fears that her optimism is unwelcome and out of step with where she lives. So she keeps quiet about how she feels, and what she sees. And that's still pretty lonely.

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